This past summer, Marcus Williams and his brother Germaine picked up trash, installed bird boxes and painted benches at Kingman Island near the shuttered RFK Stadium in Ward 7 as part of a job they secured through the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program (MBSYEP).
For six weeks, the Williams brothers woke up early, made their daily commute and toiled in the sun for hours. While they considered the experience worthwhile and educational, they, and several of their peers, had qualms about their pay.
As 15-year-old youth, the two brothers were paid at a rate of $6.25 per hour with the ability to work a maximum of 20 hours per week. Meanwhile, their peers between the ages of 16 and 24 years old received between $9 and $16.10 per hour. The older employees among that cohort could also work longer hours.
With their pay rate well below the District’s minimum wage of $16.10 per hour, these young men and other students at Anacostia High School recently felt compelled to contact D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and members of the D.C. Council who sit on the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees the D.C. Department of Employment Services.
“I was heartbroken when I saw that paycheck,” Marcus said. “I stretched the money to get what I needed when I went to Tennessee for a camp job. The pay rate should be larger. Marion Barry made the summer job program for us to experience an actual job. I didn’t experience that [because] I lost motivation with the low pay rate.”
D.C. Code 32-242 sets the “work readiness training rate” for employees who are 14 and 15 years old at $6.25. Young people between the ages of 16 and 21 years old receive compensation at a rate no less than $8.25. Meanwhile, SYEP employees between the ages of 22 and 24 receive compensation at the rate equal to the District’s minimum wage.
The current wages reflect increases made in recent years through D.C. Council legislation.
Summer youth employees who want to dispute their pay are encouraged to first take into account holidays, taxes and their attendance before speaking with a supervisor. After an employee has spoken to a supervisor and wants to take further steps, they can call the MBSYEP support center.
Some participants recalled following these steps prior to reaching out to the D.C. Council and Bowser.
At-large D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I), chair of the D.C. Council on Labor and Workforce Development, recounted receiving requests from students for higher wages. Though she acknowledged their concerns, she said following through on their demands would cost the District tens of millions of dollars.
“If they can convince my colleagues to help me find the money, then we can do it,” Silverman said. “If they can convince the mayor, that’s great because she would put it in the budget.”
Earlier this year, Bowser said 13,000 young people participated in SYEP this past summer. Youth employees took on various roles at job sites across the District, including the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking through which they taught their peers about financial literacy. At other job sites, young people learned skills they said would follow them throughout the rest of their professional and academic journey.
Anacostia High School student Unique Simmons said the skills she acquired through summer professional development workshops could take her a long way. However, she said that couldn’t make up for making less than $300 every pay period during the summer, especially after traveling by bus from Northeast every morning.
After giving it much thought, Unique, 15, said she’ll most likely take a different route next summer.
“I’ll get a job at Safeway or Rainbow. Those jobs teach the same thing,” Unique said. “You learn life skills when you encounter people who argue with you. I want D.C. Mayor Bowser to give us feedback when we say something. My peers got paid $9 an hour while I got paid $6. I was upset because of how little I got paid. The pay wasn’t important – but it was at the same time.”